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A brazen look at love and trauma

Sending up a failing marriage after 9/11

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
By Ken Kalfus
HarperCollins, 237 pp., $24.95

We have now, inevitably, entered the season of novels shadowed by 9/11 (I'm guilty of one myself) , and given that event's profound impact upon our society, there's no telling how long the season may last. But it still takes nerve to write a satire based around 9/11: a particular blithe but steely nerve, of which Ken Kalfus is eminently possessed. Kalfus, whose story collection `` Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies" took on the vastness of Russia, has, in his new novel, taken on 9/11 and its fallout through the prism of a disintegrating marriage. Or vice versa.

The opening premise of ``A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" is simple: On that fateful morning in New York City, Joyce Harriman's business trip to San Francisco is cancel ed, and her estranged husband Marshall -- with whom she and their children continue to live in rancorous discomfort -- is late for work at the World Trade Center. Both survive the horrors unscathed, but for a brief few hours, each believes the other has been killed -- and they're thrilled about it. Already, Kalfus, known for his playful departures from realism, has ditched the plausible. The cartoonish villainy of Joyce 's and Marshall's reactions may make a broad comical point about the bitterness of divorce; but it also strays pretty far from anything like human nature. Although guilty relief might be part of the complex of emotions experienced by such characters in such a situation , here there is no recorded complexity at all.

From this bathetic drama, the novel lurches into a rollicking and often outright farcical account of Joyce's and Marshall's attempts to sabotage each other and to lay triumphant claim to their all-precious Brooklyn apartment. There are, along the way, some entertaining set pieces: the anthrax scare at Joyce's office; Marshall's hapless attempts to ruin his wife's retirement portfolio while the stock market plummets; Joyce's horrendous supermarket trips with the children, Victor and Viola; Marshall's wild night in pursuit of Viola's nursery school teacher; and so on. Then there is the wedding in Connecticut of Joyce's sister Flora. Reminiscent of ``Meet the Parents" and a dozen other slapstick films, it takes an almost painfully broad brush to paint Joyce and Flora's parents as antediluvian anti-Semitic WASPs, while Flora's intended, Neal, newly in touch with his Judaism, embarks with his brother on a parodic marathon search for a chuppah. It's all very silly indeed.

It's not entirely clear what the purpose of these relentless shenanigans may be, other than to divert and amuse; in which case, one wishes they were a rather less familiar set of shenanigans. The invigorating brazenness of the subject demands, it seems to me, a fairly impressive result. The stakes are high. But too often, Kalfus's novel feels like the rather wearied revisiting of a traditional set of divorce malaises, from wrangling, money-draining lawyers to parental quarrels in the playground or the pizza parlor. All that's different in this comedy is the backdrop, the novel's historical moment; and, albeit intermittently, the novel seems to wish to mine that moment for a greater, and ultimately unwarranted, significance.

That said, Kalfus is unreservedly marvel ous in writing about small children, both about the ways in which they torture one another and their parents, and, most memorably, about the way they think. A chapter devoted to the thoughts of young Viola is the novel's highlight: the quirkiness of observation, the intensity, the strange but ineluctable reasoning of a small mind trying to parse the chaos around her -- Kalfus captures these things magnificently, not least in a section of numbered remarks that seems to unite the minds of Cash and Vardaman (``My mother is a fish") from ``As I Lay Dying." Viola reflects: ``1. Victor's red-green-blue hard rubber ball shivered for several moments and then came to a complete stop. 2. The books leaned like a frozen wave as they approached the end of the shelf. 3. The brightest part of a lightbulb was invisible, lost in its own radiance. 4. Victor thought Barney was a real dinosaur; at the same time he knew there was someone beneath the costume. He couldn't put those two facts together. 5. They flew into the World Trade Center on purpose. 6. Her mother always rushed into the kitchen when her father came home. 7. Rachel and Maria were adopted. 8. Halloween was the best holiday. You were given candy for free and didn't have to pay."

From here, Viola spins off into reflections and realizations of a surprising profundity. She is the only character in this book not mired in venality, triviality , and even cliché. Most important , she is the only genuinely interesting person in the entire household. If only Joyce and Marshall could see the world with as unjaded an eye, we might know why we were reading about them; but alas, they wouldn't then be fit subjects for satire.

Kalfus closes the novel with the capture of Osama bin Laden, an event (sadly) as implausible as Joyce's and Marshall's reactions to each other's presumed deaths at the beginning. It's an interestingly flamboyant gesture, in a novel less flamboyant than you'd expect; and a provoking one, too. With this deus ex machina, Kalfus turns his creation back upon the reader, upon our narrative expectations and desires, both in life and in fiction, and upon their hollowness. It is, in fact, a truly powerful ending, a genuine commentary upon the lot of us. If the book as a whole lived up to Viola and bin Laden, it would be an achievement indeed.

Claire Messud's new novel, ``The Emperor's Children," will be published next month.

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